I say, anyone for winning?: After the latest Davis Cup defeat, British tennis is in turmoil. John Roberts looks at the reasons

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The Independent Online
BRITISH tennis is in turmoil, which makes a change from its usual torpor. Last weekend, the national men's team suffered a comprehensive defeat in the Davis Cup match in Portugal, prompting fierce criticism from the team captain, Tony Pickard, of the state of national training. Pickard left acrimoniously on Wednesday. The same day, one of his players, Mark Petchey, won a startling victory against Michael Stich, the former Wimbledon champion and world No 2, in the South African Open. What is going on?

Unfortunately, Petchey's recent flashes of brilliance buck the trend. Both he and Jeremy Bates played poorly in their Davis Cup singles matches in Oporto. And Britain's 4-1 humiliation completed a sequence of four consecutive defeats, the worst record for 20 years.

Ilie Nastase, Romania's captain, must be rubbing his hands. He is due here with his players in July for a match that Britain must win to avoid the ignominy of demotion to Group Two of the Euro-African Zone - the third division of this top team competition.

In the long ago, Britain won the Davis Cup on nine occasions, the last four consecutively during the era when Fred Perry graced the courts, 1933 to 1936. The last appearance in a final was in 1978.

Perry, a rebellious spirit whose father rose from cotton spinner to Labour MP, was the last Briton to win the men's singles championship at Wimbledon, completing a hat- trick in 1936. Virginia Wade, an archdeacon's daughter with a science degree, was the last to win the women's singles title, in 1977.

Today, Jeremy Bates, the leading male player, is aged 31 and ranked No 120 in the world; Clare Wood, the top woman, is aged 26 and ranked No 82. Ten years have elapsed since Britain last had a player - Jo Durie - in the top 10. Mark Cox was the last male to win a singles title on the mainstream tour, in Helsinki in 1977.

The source of today's failures is to be found in the Seventies, when Britain lost touch with the growth of the sport worldwide, in terms of amenities, technique and training. The nation is still paying for that decade of neglect.

Contemporary tennis is barely recognisable as the sport it was before the advent of open tennis in 1968, when amateurs and professionals were first allowed to compete together. While other countries responded to the new challenges of professionalism, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) remained amateurish and complacent. By 1978 deep unease at the state of British tennis led the sports minister, Denis Howell, to set up an inquiry, headed by John Smith, the chairman of Liverpool Football Club. The damning conclusions, published in 1980, galvanised the sport's administrators into action.

Profits from Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tennis tournament, are passed on to the LTA for the development of the sport. Since 1980, the cumulative pre-tax total has amounted to almost pounds 100m (last year alone it was pounds 16.4m). Much of this has been spent building indoor tennis centres, increasing the number and variety of outdoor courts, structuring national training and development and creating tournaments.

But the investment has yet to produce winners. Catching up is inevitably a long-term process, involving creating an infrastructure that will both encourage participation from an early age and catch the occasional extraordinary talent that may emerge. So far, no such dynamic player has surfaced in Britain.

Meanwhile, the competition does not stand and wait. While the LTA was dozing, Bjorn Borg appeared and laid claim to the Wimbledon title for five consecutive years. Borg was a phenomenon, but the Swedes already had a structure in place, which meant they were prepared for his heirs, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and others who have been very good, if not great. Even now, Sweden has 1,500 covered courts, compared with 532 in Britain.

Boris Becker boomed at Wimbledon in 1985, followed shortly afterwards by Steffi Graf. Germany had never experienced their like, but at least the tennis federation had a suitable development programme in which to nurture the prodigies and the wannabes.

The French were fortunate in that Arthur Ashe spotted the young Yannick Noah while visiting Cameroon, but they, too, had laid a sound foundation, in terms of facilities and coaching, on which Noah, Henri Leconte and Guy Forget could build their careers. The French Tennis Federation, like the LTA, is funded by a Grand Slam tournament.

Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, Hana Mandlikova, Miloslav Mecir, Jana Novotna and Petr Korda were groomed in a flourishing, if spartan, Czechoslovakian system, which was also far ahead of anything available in Britain before the mid-Eighties.

While the LTA is firm in its belief that it is creating the right environment for future success, there persists an image of tennis as a pastime for the privileged, the snobbery perceived at club level presenting a barrier to the recruitment of a wider range of athletic youngsters.

Each year during Wimbledon, children turn up at local clubs brandishing expensive new rackets, but not all are made welcome, and many of those who are find difficulty obtaining a court. With so many alternative pursuits available, the racket is liable to gather dust. These days, many clubs do provide court time for juniors, arrange coaching sessions and organise tournaments. Those who do not are excluded from receiving LTA grants. The witholding of Wimbledon ticket allocations might prove a more effective sanction.

In spite of all the handicaps, talented young players are discovered and do progress through junior championships and extensive regional and national coaching schemes. Too few continue to display the potential of champions beyond their mid-teens.

Tony Pickard has guided Stefan Edberg's career for 11 years, in which time the Swede has twice won the Wimbledon title, along with four other Grand Slam championships. 'There's an old-fashioned saying, 'Champions are born' ,' Pickard remarked after Britain's defeat in Portugal. 'But champions also have to be coached to win.'

Given that he had no alternative but to select Britain's team from a handful of lowly ranked players, Pickard argued that the LTA's coaching system still does not adequately prepare youngsters for the rigours of the world game, which demands more power, speed, fitness and athleticism than ever before. Ironically, a side effect of Pickard's row this week with Richard Lewis, the director of national training, was the resignation of Bill Knight, the respected manager of men's training.

Pickard argues that not enough people running the British game have first-hand knowledge, experience and expertise when it comes to the demands of the international circuit. But nor do they have raw material of Edberg's quality to work with. The vicious circle continues, and the game moves on.

Until the late Seventies, three of the four major championships were played on grass, the fastest surface. Now only Wimbledon has lawns. Over the same period the traditional wooden racket has become obsolete. Sophisticated synthetic models have increased velocity by 30 per cent. Moreover, the extent of talent in the men's game has never been greater, making it harder than ever to establish a position in the world's top 50.

The LTA belatedly has recognised the need to provide numbers of slower surfaces on which young players can learn the groundstrokes and strategy necessary to compete on clay courts, such as the one on which British feet dragged in Portugal. At least when Romania comes to play its Davis Cup match, Britain will have the advantage of competing on grass, which the visitors are rather less used to.

But in the end, whatever the training or facilities, there is no substitute for personal ambition. The match in Oporto was played at a small, homely club nestling beside the outer wall of a 16th century castle near the seafront. The Portuguese team captain was Jose Vilela, a 42-year-old former national champion and Davis Cup player. The son of a local fisherman, Vilela first attracted attention by selling lost tennis balls to club members. Incidentally, he was 11 when he wore his first pair of shoes.

(Photographs omitted)

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